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drive, she said

'At the next available intersection, make a legal U-turn."

If you haven't heard this a thousand times, you either don't have a GPS with vocal commands, or you are inordinately good at following directions. The lady telling me to make that legal U-turn never gets stroppy and she never loses hold of those dulcet tones. In her lightly accented English, she makes me want to follow her to the ends of the earth. The problem, of course, is sometimes that is exactly where she is leading me.

Like most relationships, the one you have with your navigation system becomes stronger (or at least more predictable) over time. You finally learn how long the delay is between punching in numbers and letters and the computer storing it; you learn how long it takes the system to adjust to the last turn; you learn that muttering "you must be joking" doesn't faze her in the least.

You can opt for no voice-over at all, but if you are truly in unknown territory, especially with road signs in a language not native to you, it can get a little sticky. If you are someone who enjoys music as you drive, the robot voice telling you to prepare to turn right in 400 metres can clash with Chrissie Hynde's. I'm still waiting for the software that will feature my navi prompts to be delivered within the song lyrics.

There is humour to be mined in some systems, though. Because they are programmed to pronounce phonetically, it can be fun to listen to Ms. Calm and Collected stumble sometimes. My favourite? A friend, upon heading into Calabogie Motorsport Park in eastern Ontario, was told to turn on to Calamity Road.

Horror stories of misused GPS systems abound. Some are head-scratchers: how do you drive your car directly into a lake or ocean, as has been reported numerous times? Sometimes the faith people have in modern technology is gobsmacking, like the Belgian woman who drove 900 miles instead of 90 and ended up in Croatia. Sometimes the results are just tragic, like the couple from British Columbia who trusted the "shortest route" setting to Nevada, not realizing this would factor in off-season, little-used forest roads. The woman was stranded for seven weeks while her husband died trying to find help.

Technology is still only as good as the humans who design it, make it and use it. I spent a weekend on Manitoulin Island last year in a lovely Land Rover, which was great in every way except for the fact that the GPS believed the entire island was underwater. My son tried a few approaches before finally announcing that we were on Atlantis.

It is for this reason that I still cling to fold-out paper maps. The United States is particularly good at giving towns and cities and districts the same names and, if you're driving past one, you might be at the other before you know it. There are dozens of Germantowns in the United States; there are even more places called Springfield. A map will let you see if there is overlap, but a tiny screen won't.

Next time I have a vehicle with a GPS, I'm determined to solve one mystery I found earlier this summer. Entering an address on the Hamilton Mountain got me there directly. Entering my home address rerouted me in an entirely different direction. I wanted to take the same route home, yet no matter how I configured it, the navigation system refused to co-operate. For several days, this went on. I went the way I wanted anyway, and concluded for the first time in my life I was being told you can't get there from here.

On a recent trek though mountain country near Whistler, B.C., without a navigation system, we were curious where various roads ended, or better yet, connected up to even more roads. You're testing a vehicle's capability nosing down mystery roads, but you're also testing your own capability to pull a Ginger Rogers if there is no way out: do all the fancy moves that Fred Astaire does but backwards.

Like an old-time tracker, you look for signs. Tire tracks are a hopeful indicator; if locals haven't taken something bigger than an ATV down a particular trail, I'm not going to bother trying. With no technological head's up of what might be lying in wait down a steep, heavily forested road, we did the only thing that made sense.

We rolled down the window and asked a hiker going by.

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